Monday, 20 April 2020

The weirdness of language, and why you can't be in two places at once


In common language, we often talk about concepts such as self-worth, self-care and self-awareness. Yet these concepts cannot exist in the real, physical world. This is often one of the most challenging concepts for students of NLP to get to grips with.

First, a general concept of the relationship between language and experience. We can represent things and events in language which cannot exist in the 'real world'. If we try and represent some of the ideas in our heads in language, we create a stream of metaphors, which cannot be directly understood by a listener. The listener can therefore only interpret the language if we have enough shared life experience through which to translate the metaphors.

For example, if someone isn't listening to me and I say, "He's as deaf as a post" then a native English speaker will probably understand what that means. However a younger, non-native English speaker might interpret 'post' ambiguously. Their first thought might not be of a fence post, instead a social media post might seem more familiar. How can someone be as deaf as a Facebook post? And yet, in trying to interpret the concept of 'deaf' you are already thinking about how people on Facebook don't listen to each other, how their posts are broadcasts of their opinions, and so on. Through an attempt to understand each other, we have created a new metaphor.

Much of our spoken, and indeed our written language is ambiguous. I can say a word in one way, but spell it in multiple ways, and a word that is spelled in the same way can have multiple meanings. In the 'Milton Model' of NLP, we call these 'phonological ambiguities' and they are used to induce a trance state. Ambiguous words such as sea/see/si or weight/wait need context before they 'make sense'. Other words derive their context from the knowledge of the speaker, such as:

Cat (an animal)
Cat (a type of boat, catamaran)
Cat (a device that reduces vehicle emissions, catalytic converter)
Cat (a character in the TV series Red Dwarf)
Cat (a steel cable used to carry overhead electricity, catenary wire)
When a garage mechanic tells you that he's going to replace your cat, that's a very different meaning to the same words spoken by a vet.

Therefore, we make sense of such ambiguous metaphors by relating the sound or the written word to our expectations, which are a mixture of context and previous experience. This is how we are able to make sense of language which, when we look carefully at it, makes no sense at all.

I think you understand that it is not logically possible to carry yourself, because you have no point of leverage with which to pick your own body up off the floor. Therefore the phrase "he carries himself well" cannot be a description of a primary sensory experience, it must be a distortion, a judgement. It is a metaphor for how someone walks and acts. A child, hearing this for the first time, might be confused, and might ask what it means. Alternatively, the child may notice whatever seems salient at that point and attach that observation to the statement. Through this, we each learn what 'professionalism' means, and we each have our own unique interpretation. A manager in a company I once worked for would get very frustrated when sales people didn't show enough professionalism. Everyone interpreted the word differently. It turned out that, to him, it meant dark blue suit, white shirt, dark tie.

Let's assume that language follows a predictable and consistent structure of 'SVO' or 'Subject Verb Object'  or 'actor -> action -> thing acted upon', in English at least - many other languages are SOV, the subject always comes first.

Therefore, every statement relates to something with agency, another thing (a different thing), and a change over time observed taking place between them. According to Noam Chomsky and Stephen Pinker, every language in the world follows the same structure, so we might from that assume that every human being observes physical change in the world in the same way, and describes it in the same way, at least in terms of structure.

We might say that the subject always comes first, so the entity that has intention is the first thing that we comment on, and that is usually the speaker, "I". Some languages omit the opening "I", and if the subject is omitted, it is assumed to be the speaker. "Going to the shops" means "I am going to the shops", for example.

If we substitute a different subject/object in our carrying example, based on the above assumption, e.g. the suitcase carries itself, we can again observe that this action can't exist in the world. A suitcase cannot carry itself.

I can imagine a marketing agency coming up with some kind of suitcase with an electric motor and advertising it as 'the suitcase that carries itself' but that is obviously a distortion, the suitcase is not carrying itself, it is rolling on motorised wheels. Carrying is the human action being replaced by the wheels. The case is not carrying itself, but it is doing something as a substitute for being carried.

Now if we substitute 'action' for 'carry' based on the assumption that the above structure always applies, we get 'thing 1 action thing 2', e.g. the suitcase acts upon the suitcase. When you picture this abstract example, you see two different suitcases, yes? And you replace 'acts upon' with something that one suitcase is doing to another.

How about 'the person acts upon the person'?

Again, you see two different people, yes?

How about 'the person cares for the person'?

'I' and 'myself' or 'me' are self references that can occupy either the subject or object position, but not both in a single verb structure, simply because that would require the same person, at the same time, to be both the actor and the thing acted upon.

"I carried the suitcase"

"The suitcase carried me"

Both examples can be described in the physical world. I carried myself cannot.

The laws of physics exist in the real world, yet in the subjective, distorted world of my internal reality, I make judgements and descriptions of events which cannot take place in reality, they can only take place in my imagination. Those laws don't change depending on what word we're using. The structure of experience for "I hit him" doesn't change when we change the word to "I hit me". We can change the word, we can distort the meaning to make it fit, to 'make sense' of it, but that doesn't change the laws of physics.

In computer programming, I can say "The document is sent by magical fairies to the printer" but that doesn't make it happen. The following piece of computer code would make something happen:

<?php
print "Hello";
?>

Well, I said that, and my printer isn't printing. What the hell? It didn't work. I said print and my printer doesn't work. Nothing is happening. It's broken.

A programmer might say, "Well, that's not what print means, print means send to the standard output, if you mean print on your printer, that's more complicated you need to...." etc.

The key is reproduceability. Could we write a software program that will always work, will always do what it is asked to do? For example, add two numbers and display the result. Regardless of the numbers I feed in, will it always work? Or does it only work with some numbers, with the 'right' numbers? Does it sometimes not work at all, or display the wrong result? And does it then say, "Well, that's not what I meant".

No, if we write a program that allows the user to input two numbers, and the program then adds those numbers and displays the result, the function of the program would be consistent, reliable, and wouldn't change depending on what numbers the user entered.

Our goal with modelling in NLP is reproduceability. What are the conditions under which a person would always get the intended result, regardless of input?

Could we write a program to care for someone? Yes, if we very strictly define first what that means. If we know what 'print' means, we can get a predictable result. If we know what 'care' means then again, it's predictable. Could we therefore program a medical robot to provide care? To do everything that a human nurse could do? Probably, yes. But would the robot 'care' in the way that a human does? Would the robot experience caring? Let's assume 'no'. But then, why would we want the human nurse to 'care'? We want him or her to provide care, but I'm sure that many very good nurses, doctors and vets actually don't care about their patients, because that would make the job far too traumatic for them. We talking about the caring professions, but we need to focus on the actions of care, not the intentions.

Let's try another example, "I made myself a cup of tea". If I observed you, I would see you 'making' a cup of tea. I would not see your intention. What if you made it with the intention of drinking it, then someone else drank it? An observer might say "He made tea for someone else" because that was the observable sequence of events. Intention is not visible to an observer. The phrase I often hear at home is, "I was going to do that" or "I was about to do that". I can only observe action, not intention. It would be more accurate to say, "I had a thought about doing that but didn't put that thought into action".

Your intention cannot be observed, and so only exists in the way you compare experiences to form judgements. Eating organic soup is 'self care', whereas eating chocolate is not, for example. On the other hand, eating anything at all, whatever it is, is surely 'self care'. Breathing is 'self care'.

So does care mean what I think it means? Or does it mean something else? Is care a way of saying "takes care of my physical and emotional needs as if I am valuable"? And if that is the case, can I say, "I care about I" or "Me cares about me"? I can say it, but does it means what I think it means? How about "I care about me".

If we're picky we could say that I and me are two different words and therefore different things. I can act. Me is passive. I sits in the subject position, with free will. Me sits in the object position, as the passive recipient of an action. We therefore need to split "I care for me" into its physical world sequence: "I care for x and x cares for me". Does that not describe a normal relationship? Because two people are now involved, both can care and be cared for at the same time. When we take away person x, when they are no longer available to care, and we try to replace that by looping the sequence internally, we loop the program back in on itself. In computers, that will usually cause a crash or a race condition. "A race condition is an undesirable situation that occurs when a device or system attempts to perform two or more operations at the same time, but because of the nature of the device or system, the operations must be done in the proper sequence to be done correctly."

Perhaps I and me are two different entities. Perhaps I is the intent, the actor, and me is the recipient, the sensor. But they are inseparable within us.

How about "I feed myself". We say it about babies, because as with the self-carrying suitcase, the baby learns to do something that the parent had previously done. For a few weeks after the baby first grabs the spoon, the proud parent says, "She's feeding herself now!" but as soon as the novelty wears off, that changes to, "She's having her breakfast".

The baby is eating. The child is eating. The adult is going out for dinner. I can't imagine that you have your lunch at work and people say, "Aw, look, you're feeding yourself". Your first reaction on reading these words is to imagine it. After that comes the tension of being mocked, because that is one interpretation of the scenario, one explanation for why someone would say that, and finally comes the joke to break the tension and restore control, to put I back in the subject position.
The problem in all of this really arises when we take a higher level judgement, based on "when I felt cared for in the past, these are the kinds of things that someone did for me, and when someone doesn't do those things, they don't care about me" and we then directly translate that abstract, distracted commentary back into primary, concrete, sensory reality. You only have to spend 5 minutes on Facebook to see people arguing over such subjective distortions of reality. And to reiterate the point I made in the group, counsellors and therapists are trained to interrupt people from getting lost in their distortions and ground the client back into "What actually happened? What did you see and hear? How did you feel? What must your experience or expectation be for you to feel that way? Are there other ways to feel? Could it have meant something else?" and so on.

Where does all of this leave us with self-worth, self-care and self-awareness?

You cannot value yourself, because you cannot be both the valuer and the thing being valued at the same time. Every major religion in the world seems to advocate the same message; if you want to know your worth, do something valuable for others. If you want to feel loved, love others. If you want to feel cared for, care others. Charity, giving and helping seem wired into our basic social instincts.

How can you care for yourself? If you cared for yourself, you wouldn't need others to care for you. Perhaps self-care is a substitute for being cared for. Which would you prefer? A mutually supportive relationship is one in which I care for you and you care for me; we take care of each other. You physically cannot 'watch your own back', and every police, military and superhero movie has a theme of people being responsible for each other's safety.

The self-help industry (don't get me started on that one) promotes self-awareness. I put it to you that there can be no self-awareness, there can only be awareness of others. By being aware of others, and the impact that we have on others, we become more aware of our effect on the world.

The simple concept which I have attempted to explain here is that the physical world contains objects which interact, and as humans we perceive those interactions as taking place in time, and we describe those interactions using language. Language distorts what we have observed, but those distortions cannot change the physical world, even though we often pretend that they do. We think that ignoring a problem will make it go away. We think that hiding a mistake will correct it. We think that arguing over religion and politics actually changes anything.

We can, of course, change the world, but to do that, we have to be much more specific about what we actually intend to do, and then we have to do it.


Saturday, 28 March 2020

There is Now or there is Know

Humans are compelled to structure time. We might even say that humans create time, through the way that we perceive sequences of cause and effect. Without a human mind to observe the universe, the universe exists only in the now. It has no past or future.

Through millennia of scientific research, driven by our need to structure time and to understand ‘why?’, we have come to understand the nature of the physical world. We understand the laws of physics well enough to send probes to other planets. We understand chemical processes well enough to combine elements and estimate the passage of geological time. Detectives will look at a crime scene in the present and deduce what must have happened in the past. A fingerprint says that someone was here. How did that person get here? Where did  they come from? Where did they go next?

Our ability to structure time creates two illusions which we commonly call ‘past’ and ‘future’.
Just as the rocks in a cliff face contain a memory of the passage of millions of years of time, our minds and bodies are built upon layers of foundations created by past events. Those past events are not happening now. Your lifetime of worry and laughter isn’t happening now. The wrinkles around your eyes only exist now. We can deduce what muscle movements caused those wrinkles. By examining the structure of the connections in your brain we could even deduce what experience led to those muscle movements.

Your mind is a map of reality – your reality, up until this moment. Everything that you have seen, heard, felt, experienced through your many senses is encoded in the connections between decision making cells which we call neurons. If you cannot begin to imagine how your entire life experience is stored in this way then you are beginning to understand how bad humans are at handling very big numbers. You have 90 billion neurons, each with up to 10,000 connections to neighbouring neurons. You have more connections in your brain than there are observable stars in the universe. But you cannot imagine such a large number, and so you find it hard to believe that your brain is nothing more than a densely packed flowchart, a decision making matrix that consistently and predictably takes whatever sensory input is presented and generates a motor output; an action.

Everyone human on this planet (and orbiting around it) is consistent, habitual, ritualistic. Except you. You are the only unique, free-thinking, rational member of the species. You can see others’ habits. You can see how your friends set off the same sequence of events when they  compete for status. You can see your parents repeating the same arguments, over and over again. You know what loved ones will say before they say it. But you? You are the master of your destiny, you are the only person on this planet who is truly unique, who lives in the moment. And when you think of it like that, it doesn’t seem plausible, does it?

How can we explain this disparity between what you see and what others see? It’s really very simple – you are the only person in the world who has never seen and will never see you. You exist only in the now. You are reacting to this moment only. You are not aware of what past events have led you to this moment.

Your family, friends and colleagues see things differently. They remember the last time you reacted this way, and the time before, and the time before. They notice similarities, connect them together and declare that you are “always doing this”. “Doing what?” you ask in frustration. Your consistency is, of course, what gives you friends, colleagues and family. People who are unpredictable are hard to live with, they make us feel unsafe, and we operate from fear rather than security. If you’ve ever known someone who had a ‘quick temper’ then you know what this means and how this feels.
Imagine if you could not replay your memories. Imagine if your life experience was encoded into your mind and body but you could not directly access it. You would still make the same decisions, but you wouldn’t be able to explain why. You would know how to make tea or sing your favourite song, but you wouldn’t know how you know. No doubt you have heard of cases of amnesia in which people, as a result of physical or psychological trauma, can remember how to get to their house but can’t remember where they live.

One reason for this interesting phenomena is that we don’t possess just one type of memory. For example, you have a memory for remembering sequences of events, and you have a memory for remembering actions. This enables you to remember physical skills long after you’ve forgotten how you learned them.

When I was a teenager, I played the flute in a concert band. I stopped playing when I started work, and 30 years later I rejoined the same band following a reunion event. Every few years, I had found my flute and played it briefly, so I knew that I could still play. However, at the first rehearsal I attended after rejoining, I realised something that worried me – I could no longer read music. I saw patterns of lines and dots on the page and I had no idea what they meant. The band was still playing some of the same music from 30 years ago, and if I knew the music I could play along without having to think about it. But for music that I hadn’t played before, I had to go back to the very first thing I learned about reading music aged 11; FACE and Every Good Boy Deserves Food, the mnemonics for remembering the notes on a musical stave.

If I looked at a black dot on the middle line, I had no idea what note it represented. I had to count – Every, Good, Boy. B. If the subsequent notes followed the first with only slight changes then I could play for a while, but if the notes jumped to begin a new theme, I was back to counting.

It was as if my conscious, thinking, rational mind had completely forgotten how to play music, but my unconscious, unthinking, irrational mind still knew. What was actually happening was that the motor movements to press my left thumb and forefinger together to produce a B were still wired into my motor cortex. My brain still had the ability to produce the same output, but its ability to decode the input was missing.

Over the next few weeks, my ability to read the notes in the stave came back. After that, I relearned how to read the notes that sit above and below the stave, as well as being able to decode sharps and flats, the half notes that sit between the 7 main notes. This is trickier than it sounds because, for example, C sharp is the same note as D flat, and sometimes the composer will favour sharps, and sometimes flats, and the player needs to be able to quickly switch between the two. Because of the odd arrangement of the musical scale, C flat is the same as B. My weeks of boring practice of scales and arpeggios at age 11 suddenly made sense. I couldn’t read music, but I could play it, and I retained an intuitive sense of how musical notes fit together.

The process of distant knowledge becoming increasingly within my grasp was fascinating. After a few months, I was a far better player than I had ever been as a teenager.

Amnesia is a theme often explored in literature. For example, in the Jason Bourne series of films, Bourne learns that he has self-defensive skills but he can’t remember how he acquired them. He can’t even remember who he is. Over time, he follows a series of clues that reveal information about his past. He even begins to remember fragments of it.

In the Marvel comic books and films, Dr Bruce Banner can’t remember what he does when he transforms into the Hulk, and the Hulk is unaware of Banner. You might recognise this as a modern interpretation of Jekyll and Hyde, but where and when did you first learn about Jekyll and Hyde? Did you read it in a book? Did someone use the phrase to describe an unpredictable person? Did you see the old black and white film? When did you first hear your name? How did you learn how to make tea, or slice bread, or open a packet of biscuits?

You know that you know these things because you can perform the actions. You might even make up a story to explain how you know. But even without that story, you still know.

Imagine life without past and future. Imagine being aware of only the now, and acting from the foundations of your experiential knowledge. This would be a life free from worry, and perhaps also free from dreams.

Fortunately, you can dream, and you can hope and you can aspire. You can build on your foundation of knowledge. And yet, you would do well to remember that the stories you tell yourself about past and future are merely stories, created to comfort yourself, created to present the illusion of choice, the illusion that you are the only unique, rational person, that you are not a mere creature of habit. The truth is that you don’t really know how you know what you know, but you know that you know it. The evidence is in your actions, and through your actions you touch the world, you leave a trail of evidence for future generations to follow.

Focus on now. Build on what you know. Trust others to follow.